NPR's Brooke Gladstone On Comics, Media, More

Our two-part interview with National Public Radio On the Media host Brooke Gladstone on her graphic novel The Influencing Machine concludes today [Click here for part one]. In this half, Gladstone talks about working with artist Josh Neufeld, some of her favorite graphic novels, and what she’s learned from creating a comic book.

Newsarama: Brooke, how did you hook up with Josh for this?


Brooke Gladstone
: He was actually recommended to me by Dan Frank, who was the editor who bought A.D. at Pantheon.

Nrama: Had you seen his work anywhere before?

Gladstone: Well, actually, when Dan suggested him, I looked at all of his work. I thought he had both seriousness and humor, and I planned to play a variety of notes, both serious and tragic. I looked at A.D. online, and it was clear that he could be funny and he could be dead serious, and he had a sense of drama, and he also had an economy of line, so I cold-called him.

Nrama: You showed a knowledge of major graphic works – how into comics were you before this project, and did working on this get you into any books? 


: I was into comics as a kid, and I wanted to do this book that way. I looked at David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass – that was just amazing. I was familiar with Paul Auster’s book, and I knew what was being conveyed just with lines. It was just mind-blowing how brilliantly he conveyed the kind of worried internal monologues that go into that book.

I thought, “It’s possible to say things not just with feelings, but with lines.” Between Scott McCloud explaining these ideas to me and giving me examples, and books like this, that were just done so brilliantly all the way through, I was just desperate to try reading everything.

I became a kind of – I don’t want to say “instant expert,” but I started collecting every great graphic novel I could find, all the series, and Josh lent me a bunch of stuff.

Prior to that, I had tried to write a science fiction graphic novel about two reporters in the year 2042, and a friend of mine had given me Transmetropolitan, which showed me how many ideas I thought were original had already been done. (laughs)

From there, Josh gave me Y: The Last Man, all of those, and I initially had my deal with DC Comics, and they gave me tons of things. And I had a conversation with Art Spiegelman, who gave me a piece of advice that really helped me.

I don’t know if everybody does this, but it really helped me with the rhythm of the book, and the advice was to try to finish the idea by the bottom of the page – if there’s a thought, try to finish that thought at the bottom of each page, don’t end in mid-thought. That was challenging too, but I think it really helped the rhythm.

Nrama: What are some of the comics you’ve enjoyed out of what you’ve encountered since then?

Gladstone: I thought Stitches was wonderful, and Asterios Polyp was genius. I really thought The Alcoholic was great. I was already a fan of Harvey Pekar – I really liked The Quitter. I thought A.D. was an amazing achievement. Those are just off the top of my head. 


: You mentioned talking to DC about this originally – what happened?

Gladstone: Basically, I plotted myself into a corner. I need to work on plotting. (laughs) And then when the idea was suggested to do this book, they weren’t really the right publisher for it.

Nrama: What do you feel is the real great advantage of the medium of comics – what are some things you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else?

Gladstone: Well, first of all, it forces an economy upon you. When you do it, it makes you boil down. You can’t temporize, you can’t thumb-suck for a few chapters, you can’t shilly-shally. You have to know what it is you want to say, and you have to say it precisely.

It forced a preciseness onto my writing, a part of which has definitely transferred back to comics from the radio. Many people have said that my writing is so much more direct, and so much more evocative, because there’s so much more precision in it now from the writing of this book.

I always had lots of words; I usually had too many. Writing comics forces a precision into your thinking.

Nrama: There’s a huge number of sources quoted in the back of this book – the research for this must have been incredible. 


: It was! The notes in the back of the book are pretty surprisingly wrong. I ranged far and wide. It was my graduate school degree – my informal, self-guided graduate degree.

Nrama: Do you see yourself doing another book like this n the future?

Gladstone: I would love to do this form again. I said everything I need to say for now about the media in this form, although it may need a revision in a few years.

But I do want to do it again, I really do. It’s been great for me as a writer and as an analyst, and it’s compelling when you know that you’ve got just the write image – like I have myself on a swing to show polls swinging, just the little things.

Every once in a while, I really hit my stride. The key thing is to not just explain things with pictures – I wanted this to be a ride, and I hope it is.

Nrama: I enjoyed the book, but it left me a bit unsettled--

Gladstone: You didn’t feel reassured?

Nrama: I felt some reassurance at the end, but there were some things you revealed about people and how information is transferred that caught me off-guard.

Gladstone: Yes, human beings are wired to resist new information! (laughs) I just hope when people read the book and when they understand where we’ve been, where we’re going will make a lot more sense.  


: I went to journalism school, and I’m curious if there’s been any talk of this being taught in J-school.

Gladstone: It’s come up! A number of people have said that. We’ll see whether the form attracts them or repels them, but it was the way to tell my story.

Nrama: What’s the most interesting reaction you’ve had for the book so far?

Gladstone: I guess I’ve been surprised the most by how the book has been embraced by a wide variety of commentators so far. People like Jay Rosen at NYU, and Kirkus and Publishers Weekly and the AP and even Ted Rall have positively reviewed it. It’s amazing that people are engaging directly with the ideas – no one seems to have any problem with the form! They seem to think it was a really good idea!

The credit for that, of course, goes to Josh, who is a great comic artist, and who was able to translate the stuff that I gave him so evocatively, and then to make things better everywhere. That people are engaged so much with the ideas, and not distracted but acknowledging that this was a legitimate way to present this argument, is something I’ve found very surprising.

Nrama: The format seemed to add to the clarity of the material –

Gladstone: That was the intention! But my worry was that people would see it just as a gimmick and dismiss it, when I felt it was integral to the argument that I was making. But they didn’t! And maybe that’s more about me underestimating how well-regarding and legitimate graphic non-fiction is seen as a way to communicate ideas.

I thought that there would still be a resistance to it – you know, the primacy of the written word. But everyone understands the ideas, and they really love the art. They understand it. 


: What’s next for you?

Gladstone: Well first, I’m going to have to pay more attention to my program. It’s like a neglected child. So I need to focus on that for a while. I don’t have another subject, but I’m thinking of getting back to my novel. But I did fulfill my dream to be a comic strip character!

Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?

Gladstone: Well, the key thing for me is for people to realize that The Influencing Machine is a mistaken metaphor for the media, but for me, the media is a metaphor for what it means to be human. It really is.

So that’s why so much of the book is spent on evolution and cognition and history and art, because I would be sad if people thought this was just a book about journalism. It’s really a book about the prism through which we make ourselves known, and how we become known to ourselves.

The Vision Machine is in stores now.

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